Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Benjamin DeCasseres, Spinoza Liberator of God and Man (1932)

There has been a flurry of biographies in recent years about Baruch Spinoza. Among them: Spinoza, A Life by Steven Nadler ; Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind by Steven Nadler ; A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza's Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age by Steven Nadler ; Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein; Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity: 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel; The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart; Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain by Antonio Damasio

Each of these volumes is commendable to the reader interested in the man whom Albert Einstein called "The greatest of modern philosophers." And to read the written word of Baruch Spinoza himself, there is the relatively recent edition of Spinoza's Complete Works translated by Samuel Shirley.

When Benjamin DeCasseres wrote Spinoza: Liberator of God and Man, he cites only John Colerus' The Life of Benedict Spinoza (1705) and a unnamed volume authored by John Maximilian Lucas published in 1719 as his sources on the life of Baruch Spinoza. As the list of books above demonstrates, the late 20th and now the 21st centuries are increasing their attention to Spinoza.

DeCasseres' small book is not a biography, but it is what The Washington Post obituary writers would call "an appreciation." It is an appreciation of the philosophical foundations of the thinking of Baruch Spinoza: mystical pantheism born of the mind of Plotinus; Epicurus' pursuit of happiness and avoidance of anxiety; and Giordanno Bruno's pantheism. It is also an appreciation of how Spinoza's writings have influenced modern thinking.

An important aspect of Spinoza's thinking is his rejection of anthropotheism. DeCasseres, however, has a very different take on anthropomorphism or anthropotheism than Spinoza's works describe. "The evolution of the idea of God is an anthropomorphic evolution," DeCasseres writes. "It has grown and expanded with the growth and expansion of the consciousness of certain individual men. God is always, and will always be, a 'personal' God, for he is always generated in a unique and individual sensibility. He is the reflection of a man's consciousness. But God's liberation proceeds just in the minds of thinkers. When the greatest degree of universalization of the idea of God is reached, as it was in the brain of Spinoza, the personality of the universalizer becomes one with the universal generalization of all the shackles of relation melt in the Absolute, and the All and any one of its infinitesimally small modes of relative and fugacious existences become one, as in the case of Spinoza. Hence the consciousness of Spinoza and God become interchangeable."

"God in Spinoza is still anthropomorphic and Panmorphic because the mathematical reasoning which Spinoza used to reach him is man-form and has no reality that we know of outside of man's brain; because the peculiar mystical intuitions of Spinoza which urged him to use this process are man-form, and because the internal and external universes with which he identified God are man-form.

"God is, then, still a prisoner, even in Spinoza, of the human reason, of mystical intuition and of the phenomenal universe. And his liberation by Spinoza consists in this: that within the limits of the imaginative Absolute, the imaginative Eternity and Infinity and the imaginative intuitions of Spinoza's consciousness God ceases to be bound by any relation, special attribute, special law or special incarnation. What was Spirit became flesh, say the incarnationists. But Spinoza says, What was flesh now becomes Spirit, and other than Spirit nothing is or can be. Therefore I am --- and you are --- God."

This is poetic hogwash. [God] cannot be a prisoner and at the same time be liberated, and it was not so "even in Spinoza." DeCasseres treats every creation of human imagination as "anthropomorphic." For Spinoza, god was not the creation of human imagination; it was something (all of Nature) the human mind came to understand through reason. By DeCasseres' definition, the Big Bang is anthropomorphic as is quantum mechanics simply because it is the creation of the human imagination. DeCasseres is wrong about god as "prisoner"; DeCasseres is correct that Spinoza did liberate "god" from its anthropomorphic tether. Spinoza did imagine Eternity and Infinity, without special attribute or special incarnation, and he imagined the entire physical universe and everything within that universe, and he imagined it without limit in time and without limit in space, and he called it god. What is anthropomorphic is something with special attributes (mode and extension in Spinoza's parlance), and by acknowledging this much, DeCasseres is inconsistent in saying Spinoza's god "without special attribute or special incarnation" was anthropomorphic.

Spinoza's god does not choose between good and evil; Spinoza's god does not love or hate; Spinoza's god does not cause miracles to happen; Spinoza's god does not hear prayers or respond to them; Spinoza's god does not bring things into being because something that is "absolute" and infinite [meaning that it represents everything] does not create itself. On this last point, it is logical to be sure, but I have to part company with Spinoza, not because of his pantheism or because of his objection to anthropotheism, or because of his objection to a Creator, but because nature is constantly creating and bringing things into being. At some point, a physical system (even a system of nature called "god") --- such as Spinoza's system (see March 6, 2012 post) --- has to address the fact that "things" in that system are brought into being that did not previously exist, at least in the same form they previously did. While I can agree with Spinoza that an anthropomorphic god did not "create" man, evolution as we know it is a fact of nature and the human species certainly was created by evolutionary forces. If "god" represents everything in nature, than god certainly represents evolutionary creation and bringing things into being. That is the "logic" of Spinoza's system, in my view.

Spinoza had enormous influence on Enlightenment discussion of a deity. His was not the only view that varied from anthropocentric Christian, Jewish, and Muslim visions of god. (See May 24, 2010 post). But however we may agree that, in Spinoza's system, god is untethered from its anthropcentric chains, most humans today still believe in an anthropocentric deity who hates, kills, loves, creates, discriminates, is petty, responds to human pleas, and has a wide variety of other human features. (See December 20, 2011 post and May 12, 2010 post and June 12, 2011 post).

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bill O'Reilly, Killing Lincoln (2011)

Was Abraham Lincoln the 19th century equivalent of Jesus Christ (nee Yeshua, English name Joshua)? Or was he the 19th century equivalent of Julius Caesar? Bill O'Reilly seems to believe he is one or the other, or perhaps both. Like Jesus, Lincoln was well-read in the scriptures and had a premonition of his death. The biblical story of the death of Jesus, however, reads more like an assisted suicide. (See September 9, 2010 post). A lingering question over Lincoln's death is whether the President and some in his inner circle were negligent in failing to make a more robust effort to protect the President given that there were both intelligence and rumors indicating that persons might try to take his life. Lincoln did not have death wish. As O'Reilly points out, the President was turning his attention to the reunification of the States now that the war was over and a man with that objective would not have had a death wish.

Others have attempted to draw parallels between Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, but the only meaningful similarities are that both were leaders and both were assasinated at approximately 56 years of age. The more interesting angle, which is not lost on O'Reilly, is Lincoln's interest in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and the fact that Mary Lincoln bought her husband a copy of the Shakespeare play shortly before he was killed. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had acted in the Shakespeare play, the only play in which he performed with both of his brothers.

In the epilogue, O'Reilly concludes, "Just as the story of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for centuries, the tragedy that befell Lincoln should be known by every American. His life and death continue to shape us as a people, even today. America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth it is influenced by evil. John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger." Here, O'Reilly uses the word tragedy to refer to an event. In contrast, Shakespearean tragedy, such as Julius Caesar, is not an event, but a story-form , in which (typically) the protagonist represents an admirable, but nevertheless flawed character, who suffers a fall. Most would probably concede that the death of Julius Caesar was not a tragedy: a dicator was overthrown in the name of the people of Rome. And the admirable but flawed character of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar who meets his demise, is not Caesar, but one of Caesar's assassins, Brutus. While Lincoln's interest in the story of Julius Caesar makes for an interesting coincidence, the parallels between Lincoln's death and Julius Caesar are limited. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is not an admirable but flawed character. As O'Reilly acknowledges, Booth was undoubtedly flawed by his false sense of self-importance, but he was not admirable: he was evil.

O'Reilly calls his book a "thriller," and it is certainly written as a page-turner. Despite a number of minor factual errors, O'Reilly's book is documented history. It is not historical fiction. This book therefore demonstrates that even historical research, if all of its purported facts are uncritically accepted, might have the power to shape belief in an uninformed way. While this outcome is unlikely with respect to beliefs about the good represented by Abraham Lincoln or the evil represented by his assassin, Booth, it could misinform the public about how Mary Surratt was treated (p.278) while she awaited her fate.

The "tragedy" in the story of Lincoln's death, if you want to call it that, lies in the unfinished business of reconciling the war-torn nation. Six weeks before his death and five weeks before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln sets out his vision for a post-Civil War America in his second inaugural address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Would the Reconstruction have been any different had Lincoln lived to fill out his second term? Would a subsequent Supreme Court have tolerated Jim Crow? And would we have experienced the level of racial lynchings across the southern states that ensued in the decades after the Civil War was over? (See December 16, 2010 post). We will never know, but if Booth's murderous act had consequences, these are the kind of consequences that were possibly put into motion by his act.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Baruch Spinoza, The Emendation of the Intellect (1660)

The life and works Baruch Spinoza have fascinated me since I was a teenager. A teacher who took an interest in my intellectual development assigned me a series of books to read, including Spinoza's Ethics. It was at that time I learned a little bit about Spinoza's life, including his excommunication from the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. As for his work, Ethics, I was admittedly too young to appreciate fully what he had written. I did understand that he believed that through reason and scientific inquiry one could come to know nature (which Spinoza referred to as "god"). I also comprehended a monism that was systematically complete, avoiding theological inconsistencies that had plagued monotheism from its Hebrew foundations.

As one reads Ethics, it is difficult to fathom why his excommunication for heresy by Amsterdam's Jewish community was so harsh. While Spinoza's god is not the same as Yaweh of the Hebrews, Spinoza seems reverent and respectful enough to be considered "religious" in his own way. So what could Spinoza have done to offend the leaders of the Jewish community of mid-17th century Amsterdam to warrant excommunicating him from their community forever and ordering its members to have no communication with him or read any of his writings?

Steven Nadler has shed some light on the mystery of Spinoza's excommunication and banishment in his book, Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind and his earlier book, Spinoza, A Life. The curses uttered against him were as vague as they were vicious, and yet his later writings exhibit a reverence of the infinite that is seldom heard or seen. Nadler deduces that the offense leading to Spinoza's expulsion from the Jewish community was his refusal to anthropomorphize the deity and recognize one's soul as having eternal life.

Whether Nadler is correct, or whether there was a wider offense will never be known. There are some who suggest that he had drawn the attention of Amsterdam's civic leaders, who leaned on Jewish community leaders to control Spinoza's religous and philosophical discussions among the gentile community. According to his biographers, Spinoza did not believe in the literalness of the Scriptures and he was less than observant. The bible, Spinoza believed, was written by men, not god. Spinoza was skeptical that the rabbinate had special knowledge of of the Torah, and disagreed with their interpretations of the Torah. Spinoza also found contradictions in the Scriptures treatment of Judaism's anthropomorphic god: reminiscent of Jose Saramago's god in Cain (see December 20, 2011 post), in a monotheistic world controlled and determined by one god, what room was there for the devil? For sure the monotheistic god had to be responsible for both good and evil. God could not be infinite if it was only responsible for the good. Spinoza was also known to mingle and engage in intellectual studies and discussions with gentiles, some of whom were described by Dutch Calvinist leaders as atheists.

I will soon be attending a play entitled The New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 by David Ives. In anticipation of this theatrical event, my curiosity was piqued as to whether anything in Spinoza's first writing following his expulsion from Amsterdam's Jewish community might reveal his beliefs that apparently led to his condemnation. The Emendation of the Intellect is an unfinished work, only 30 pages long, and was not published during his life, but it does reveal some of his early critical thoughts. Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam at age 23. Two years later, he began writing The Emendation of the Intellect.

Spinoza opens The Emendation of the Intellect with the line, "After experience had taught me the hollowness and futility of everything that is ordinarily encountered in daily life, and I realized that all the things which were the source and object of my anxiety held nothing of good or evil in themselves save insofar as the mind was influenced by them, I resolved at length to enquire whether there existed a true good, one which was capable of communicating itself and could alone affect the mind to the exclusion of all else, whether, in fact, there was something whose discovery and acquisition would afford me a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity." Freedom from anxiety is an Epicurean value, and biographers believe that Spinoza had been exposed to the philosophy of Epicurus. We can surmise that " Spinoza's "anxiety" includes the precarious financial position he finds himself in at the helm of his family's debt-laden trading business, which he and his brother Gabriel inherited from their father. Spinoza cites that "most men regard riches, honor, and sensual pleasure as the highest good, each of which can be viewed as by-products of the pursuit of commercial success, and Spinoza probably found little happiness in this endeavor. And while he is perhaps "trapped" in the family business, he is at the same time pursuing his intellectual interests, engaging with persons outside the Jewish community of Amsterdam, including Christian dissenters. In his intellectual pursuits, Spinoza "resolved" to discover whether there was a "a true good [that] could alone affect the mind . . and afford [him] a continuous joy to all eternity." This pursuit, he says, is the "highest happiness."

While lack of success and anxiety over risks in the commercial world may be a motivation to seek Epicurean peace of mind, Spinoza was also faced with a cognitive dissonance as his emerging intellectual beliefs became confrontational with his family and cultural community that had taught him much of what he knew in the first place. But Spinoza did not follow the traditional cognitive dissonance model that resolves the anxiety by living a lie or changing his beliefs to suit the majority. He pursued an independent course devoted to improving his intellect --- the subject of his first written (although unpublished) work. The Emendation of the Intellect is a precursor to his Ethics. The Emendation of the Intellect is not intended to explicate Spinoza's views on a deity. In The Emendation of the Intellect, Spinoza refers to another planned work, which he calls his "philosophy." This is not Ethics. It is a reference to another unpublished work known as A Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, in which he begins to explain his views on god in writing.

We can find in The Emendation of the Intellect several references to Spinoza's views on the human soul, which Nadler says were critical to the harshness of Spinoza's excommunication. For example, "When we clearly perceive that we sense such-and-such a body and no other . . . we clearly infer that the soul is united to the body." Later, "from the fact that I know the essence of the soul, I know that it is united to the body." For Spinoza, the "soul" is a reference to the "mind." And when he says that the soul is united to the body, he means that the mind is united to the brain. Ideas in the mind "correspond to the specific reality of its object [in nature]. This is identical to the saying of the ancients that true science proceeds from cause to effect, except that, as far as I know, they never conceived the soul, as we are here doing, as acting according to fixed laws, a sort of spiritual automaton." Clearly, at this early age of his intellectual life, Spinoza, in contrast to Descartes, did not accept the idea that the soul was separate from the body. He was not a dualist. When a person dies; his/her soul dies.

We find in this small pamphlet, an early Enlightenment rationalist trying to conquer skepticism. (See January 21, 2011 post). And to conquer skepticism in the pursuit of a "true good," he describes a "method" that demands to know "what are the circumstances with which the fictitious, the false, and the doubtful perception are concerned, and how we may be delivered from each of them." Spinoza seeks to confront superstition. What prevents us from having clear and distinct ideas about something and its attributes is confusion --- which causes us to have only partial knowledge of a complete whole or unity composed of many constituents -- failing to distinguish between the known and the unknown, and also attending at the same time without any distinction to the many constituents containing in a single thing. And the source of confusion is fictitious ideas. "The less men know of Nature, the more easily they can fashion numerous fictitious ideas, as that trees speak, that men can change instantaneously into stones or springs, that ghosts appear in mirrors, that something can come from nothing, even that gods can change into beasts or men, and any number of such fantasies." Part of the source of confusion and fictitious ideas arises from when we think of things in an abstract way --- abstraction. "The origin of Nature can neither be conceived in an abstract or universal way." Another source of confusion and fictitious ideas is failure to doubt [question critically], which arises from our "failure to reflect upon the deceptiveness of the senses." Spinoza believes, "if, after being in doubt, a man acquires true knowledge of the senses and of the manner whereby through their means distant things are represented, then the doubt is in turn removed." Finally, the limits of our memory (forgetting), unstrengthened by the intellect, is another source of confusion and fiction. Abstraction, failure to doubt, and forgetful memory give rise to imagination, "arising not from the power of the mind but from external causes, in accordance as the body, dreaming or waking, receives various motions."

Several of the postings in this blog have referred to the role of memory, imagination, and the fictitious. (See May 22, 2011 post; June 28, 2011 post; June 12, 2011 post; December 20, 2011 post). Unlike Spinoza, I don't believe that our capacity for fiction and fantasy is necessarily or absolutely detrimental to our ability to appreciate the good. Our capacity for creative arts and fiction have some relationship to our evolutionary success, and while fiction that amounts to self-deceit is not typically positive, it can be viewed in an evolutionary context. (See February 4, 2012 post). But certainly, human imagination has been critical to advance our knowledge of the physical world. (See July 30, 2011 post). Effective fiction may also help us understand our biases and transform the way we see the world, and all for the good. Similarly, we have seen that our capacity for abstraction is probably a key to our evolutionary success. (See October 25, 2011 post and June 12, 2011 post). One wonders what Spinoza would think of John Searle's "modern era of philosophy" infused with a huge body of knowledge, not known to the Enlightenment philosophers, that Searle says is "certain, objective, and universal." (See January 21, 2011 post). Yet at the same time, widespread belief in religious fictions that Spinoza found so troubling in the mid-17th century still permeate social discourse and obscure knowledge of truth (see June 12, 2011 post and February 4, 2012 post): would Spinoza think humanity has made much progress toward "something whose discovery and acquisition would afford [him/us] a continuous and supreme joy to all eternity" because we have now accumulated a larger body of knowledge about life and nature that is certain, objective, and universal? Spinoza, his biographers would argue, and I would agree, still has enormous relevance to the 21st century.

What I found most impressive him about his life is his independence of mind. While strong divisions among nations and and divisions among segments of a society during the mid-17th centure were attributable to slavish acceptance of group norms, our body politic in 21st century United States is likewise extremely divided among those subscribing to different group beliefs. The extent to which "reason" prevails in public disourse, as opposed to bias, emotion, and/or intuition has probably changed only modestly since the mid-17th century. Solutions are seldom sought behind the veil of ignorance that I described in a previous post with a view toward adopting an impartial lens toward justice, the public good, and nature (see January 11, 2011 post).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Donella Meadows, Thinking In Systems (2008)

Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch Jew and author of Ethics, was a systems thinker. Perhaps one of the greatest systems thinkers. Ethics is sometimes referred to as a "philosophical system," but it is that and more than that in describing a system. Spinoza is a material naturalist. He contemplates a deterministic system that incorporates the entire material world, and his name for that system is "god." While his contemporary detractors unfairly described him as an atheist, he was, in fact, a pantheist.

Professor Michael Morgan, the editor of Spinoza Complete Works, wrote this paragraph in his Introduction to the book:

"If the key that unlocked the secrets of possibility for us as human beings was unity and totality, the wholeness and order of all things, then the reality that grounded the aspiration to this unity and order was the fact that each of us, as natural objects and as human beings, was precisely located in that unity and order; each of our places was determined in every way, and we were thereby endowed with a very particular point of view on the whole. In a letter to Henry Oldenburg of November 1665, as he attempts to clarify the nature of parts and wholes, Spinoza provides us with a famous image. Each of us is, he tells us, like a little worm in the blood. Nature is like the entire circulatory system or like the entire organism, interacting with only a small part of it and experiencing only a very limited region. Even if we grasp the fact that there is a total system and understand its principles to some degree, our experience is so circumscribed and narrow that we are bound to make mistakes about our understanding of they system and our place in it. Myopia confines our understanding, no matter how we seek to overcome it. And we do. We aspire to experience every detail, every event, and every item as part of the whole, to see it from the perspective of the whole rather than from our own narrow point of view. Our success is limited; we can free ourselves and act in terms of the whole, but only within limits. Our goal is to free ourselves from the distortions and corruptions of our finitude, to become free, active, and rational. These are all the same, and are aspects of becoming like the whole, which is what the tradition dignifies with the title "God" or "divine" or "the Highest Good."

For Spinoza, as Professor Morgan writes, "reason in us was akin to reason in nature; one order permeated everything and enabled us, as rational beings to understand ourselves and the whole and to live peacefully and calmly within it. This was the key to science, to ethics, and to religion. It was the key to all of life. It was his goal to show, clarify, explain and teach it --- to the benefit of all humankind." Morgan's remarks about Spinoza could have formed a preface to Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems. My purpose in highlighting Professor Morgan's statement is that systems thinking is not new. It has been going on for centuries, and I doubt if Spinoza was the first systems thinker.

By the 1960s, systems thinking had become more widely adapted in academic curriculum, at least at the collegiate level. Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, is widely credited with introducing systems analysis to public policy during his tenure from 1961-1969. Systems analysis grew to become integrated in addressing engineering problems, business problems, communities, as well as looking at systems in nature (the environment). And it was during this time that Jay Forrester founded the System Dynamics group at MIT. Donella Meadows emerged from the System Dynamics group at MIT and began thinking about socio-ecological systems. Meadows' objective, as with Spinoza, was to "help us understand ourselves and the whole and to live peacefully and calmly within it."

"A system is not just any old collection of things," she writes. "A system is an interconnected set of elements ["people, cells, molecules, or whatever" she says elsewhere] that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something. If you look at that definition closely for a minute, you can see that a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose." These elements are "interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time. The system may be buffeted, constricted, triggered or driven by outside forces. But the system's response to these forces is characteristic of itself, and that response is seldom simple in the real world." Systems can be simple, or they can be extremely complex. Spinoza's system, if you think about it, may be the most complex of all, because it attempts to contemplate all of physical nature as a system. At that level, one can only discuss a system in terms of grand generalities, as Spinoza does in Ethics.

I go back to the very first posting on this blog (see August 17, 2009 post) and the discussion of units of information as the most fundamental unit of physical nature. "Systems of information-feedback control are fundamental to all life and human endeavor, from the slow pace of biological evolution to the launching of the latest space satellite," Meadows quotes Jay Forrester from his book Industrial Dynamics. "Everything we do as individuals, as an industry or as a society is done in the context of an information-feedback system." The mechanism that provides that information-feedback is known as a "feedback loop," and it is regarded as responsible for creating consistent behavior within a system over time. A feedback loop is a mechanism that monitors the parameters of the system that triggers adjustments (which Meadows refers to as "resilience" or elasticity) and ensures stasis within parameters which, in many cases, ensures the survival of the system (human body, community, ecological niche) or continuation of functional purpose in the case of an engineered artifact or system of artifacts. Stasis and survival are not guaranteed; sometimes perturbations can overwhelm feedback systems resulting in the demise of the system.

This is reminiscent of Antonio Damasio's discussion of the brain's role in maintaining homeostasis in the body. "Life requires," Damasio wrote in Self Comes to Mind, "that the body maintain a collection of parameter ranges at all costs for literally dozens of components in its dynamic interior. All the management operations to which I alluded to earlier --- procuring energy sources, incorporating and transforming energy products, and so forth --- aim at maintaining the chemical parameters of a body's interior (its internal milieu) with the magic range compatible with life. The magic range is known as homeostatic, and the process of achieving this balanced state is known as homeostasis." (See April 8, 2011 post). Damasio is describing at least the human nervous system of which the brain is a part, but probably more than one system comprising a larger system that is the human organism.

Spinoza's system can only be explained in generalities because there is simply too much information in the universe for any intelligent body to comprehend. We are forced to acknowledge and live with a laissez-faire dynamical system for all of nature in the hopes that perturbations across nature are managed by nature's own information-feedback systems and stasis is achieved. We can try to control or engineer only the small subsystems we can touch in our remote corner of the universe (or multiverses). "People who are raised in the industrial world," writes Meadows, "and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely the mind-set of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control. . . . "Self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never understand our world, not in the way our reductionist science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the trivial, we can't optimize; we don't even know what to optimize. We can't keep track of everything. We can't find the proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror." We are also returning full circle to a previous discussion of "entropy" and the "thermodynamic condition." (See August 15, 2011 post).

Spinoza would be disappointed by Meadows' conclusion, but she is right. Our scientific method, our philosophy has largely abandoned deterministic systems; we think in terms of probabilities in order to manage uncertainty. (See July 30, 2011 post). This does not mean, Meadows says, that we should stop "doing" just because we can't control something or anticipate every surprise. But we can listen to what the system tells us and "discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone." And with this conclusion, Spinoza would have felt more comfortable.